The anonymous female narrator and her physician husband, John, have rented out a colonial mansion for the summer. The narrator is immediately awed by the majestic beauty of the house and considers herself lucky to be able to spend the summer living there. However, she still finds “something queer” about the house. John hopes that the change of scenery and absence from city life will help the narrator recover from a “slight hysterical tendency.” John, a practical man, does not believe that the narrator is actually sick and decides that the best cure for her nervousness is the “rest cure,” a treatment promoted by the famous physician, S. Weir Mitchell.
John gives the narrator tonics and medicines to help with her recovery, but primarily directs her to stop writing. According to Weir Mitchell’s theory, any sort of creative activity will have a detrimental effect on the patient. The narrator does not agree with this part of her treatment and hates not being allowed to write while she rests; she suspects that work would actually speed her recovery. She has been writing occasionally in a small journal, but it is exhausting to do so in secret. The narrator also believes that her condition would improve if she were allowed to have more company. However, John tells her that such stimulation will only aggravate her nervousness.
John outlines a specific daily regimen for the narrator to follow, especially when he is in town seeing patients. He portions out every hour of the day in careful precision, ensuring that she will get plenty of rest without the chance to exercise her creativity.
The narrator discusses the house and its beautiful surroundings. The house is solitary, has hedges and walls and gates, smaller houses for gardeners and other workers, and an elegant garden. Still, she feels there is something strange about the house. She attempts to articulate these feelings to John, but he refuses to acknowledge her opinion. She finds herself getting angrier with him now, especially when he tells her to exercise self-control.
In particular, the narrator is upset about John’s choice of bedroom for her. The narrator prefers a lovely room downstairs that has nice decorations and a window overlooking the garden. However, John argues that the room is too small because it cannot fit two separate beds. He selects instead the nursery room (as indicated by the bars on the windows for children). A big room, the nursery has windows on all sides and allows plenty of sunshine. However, the wallpaper in the room - stripped off in two places - has a hideous, chaotic, yellow pattern, and the narrator can barely stand to look at it. John then enters the room and the narrator puts away her journal, as he hates for her to write.
In 1887, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, suffering for several years from depression and fatigue went to see noted physician Silas Weir Mitchell. Mitchell diagnosed her with “neurasthenia” and prescribed the "rest cure" evident in the story. Unable to write or see company, Gilman's rest drove her to the brink of insanity over the next three months. She finally discarded his advice, moved to California, and resumed her work of writing. She soon felt better, and wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper," an exaggerated version of her own experiences. Though Mitchell did not respond when she sent him a copy, she learned later that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia after reading the story.
Gilman wrote the story not merely to change one man's view of neurasthenia, but to use the story as a symbol of the oppression of women in a paternalistic society. To begin with, we know the name of the narrator's husband (John), but not her own. She is nearly anonymous; her identity is John's wife. This power imbalance extends to other areas of their relationship. John dominates her, albeit in an ultimately patronizing manner. His strong, practical, and stereotypically masculine nature is skeptical of her seemingly weak, "feminine" disorder (as neurasthenia and other mental illnesses were often categorized), and he, not she, diagnoses her problem and prescribes the cure. When he tells her to exercise self-control over her irritation with him, the effect is ironic; he controls nearly everything about her and even makes her feel ungrateful for not valuing his help enough.
The major function of John's control over her, as with Mitchell's control over Gilman, is his inhibiting her from writing. Though she feels writing would help her recover, as Gilman found, John believes it only saps her strength. He stifles her creativity and intellect and forces her into the domesticated position of a powerless wife. The act of hiding her writing whenever John is around is similar to the way literary women in the 18th-century, and even the late 19th-century (when "The Yellow Wallpaper" was written), had to hide their work from their families; Jane Austen is famous for having written her novels while periodically stowing away the manuscripts in her family's living-room.
The narrator is imprisoned, unable to exercise dominion over her mind, and the structure of the house and its surroundings bears this out: "...there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people...I never saw such a garden - large and shady, full of box-bordered paths..." Everything is separated and divided, boxed in, and locked like a prison, much as she is held captive in her room. In fact, the house itself seems designed for men; larger-than-life mansions are typically symbols of masculine aggression and competitiveness, while its being a "hereditary estate" reminds us it was probably passed down to men in the family.
Notably, the narrator wanted the more stereotypically feminine room, one that "opened on the piazza," with "roses all over the window, and such pretty old-fashioned chintz hangings!" Despite the airiness of her shared room with John, the barred windows symbolize her imprisonment. That the room may have been a former nursery is more important; she is forced into a helpless, infantile position with John as her caretaker.
In a motif that will assume more importance later in the story, she finds something strange on a "moonlit evening." Night is typically viewed in literature as an escape from the conscious order of the daytime; at night the subconscious runs wild with dreams. Moreover, the moon frequently symbolizes female intuition and sensitivity. Sunshine dominates the nursery during the day, much as John dominates the narrator during the day as he gives her "a schedule prescription for each hour in the day." Thus, sunshine is associated with ordered, masculine oppression, while the night seems to liberate the narrator in some form.
Sunshine is also equated with the yellow wallpaper, which is "faded by the slow-turning sunlight." The "sickly sulphur tint" of wallpaper is also associated with illness. The title of the story clearly indicates that the wallpaper will grow more important, and Gilman hints that the chaos of the wallpaper's pattern will have something to do with the story. For now, we can assume that the chaos has some association with the narrator's seemingly disordered mind. So far she is quite sane, but her narrative style of short sentences that move from topic to topic is similar to the wallpaper's pattern of curves that "plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions." Note, too, that the wallpaper has been stripped off in two parts of the room, a fact that suggests an internal struggle or conflict: perhaps something is trying to break free.